Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker is one of the more adventurous and prolific producers in Los Angeles, but in a musical ecosystem deafened by the screams of self-promotional hacks, he's easy to overlook. He’s either extremely calculated or overly relaxed. I can’t tell which.
When I meet him as he's about to perform a live score at an outdoor screening of the classic silent film Salomé in Hollywood, he tells me, “I don’t care if you think [what I do] is cool or not. If you like it, great. You’re welcome to it. But I don’t need to convince you it’s cool. If I have to, then it’s not cool.”
Reyes-Whittaker, a 32-year-old Angeleno of Puerto Rican descent via Inglewood, is the man behind Gifted & Blessed and his suitcase of other handles: GB, Frankie Reyes, Julian Abelar, The Abstract Eye, The Reflektor. His CV features a diverse portfolio of genres including space rap, smoothed-out electro (“The Dreamer”), “difficult” techno (“Within These Machines”), deep house edits, plunderphonics (“Rain Dance”), live analog jam sessions, beat scene–adjacent, slo-mo house excursions (Julian Abelar EP) and lots of other stuff. He has produced for Kelela (“The High”) and reinterpreted Ravel.
He’s a chameleonic, classically trained musician who is “kind of a nerd,” and a composer who calls his practice of making music “techno-indigenous studies.” His newest album, Boleros Valses y Mas, released on Stones Throw under his Frankie Reyes alias, is a beautiful, lilting set of minimalist curios that reinterpret some Latin standards and offer a perfect respite for a drought-ridden, heat-addled Los Angeles. The LP's Oberheim synthesizer covers are minimalist cloudscapes that exist somewhere between underwater levels of 8-bit Super Mario and ice cream truck music box.
“A bolero originates from Spain, really,” he explains. “But in its current form — the form that I’m covering — that stems from Cuba. The bolero sound is more about the rhythmic construction of the piece. Kind of like how a tango has its own rhythmic structure. Or even mariachis have their own rhythmic structure.”
And he’s dug into South American references as well. “There’s a couple valses — which is just a waltz but in Spanish. There’s a Peruvian valse that I covered. Those were popular in South America. I think there was a time in the early part of the recording industry when one type of Latin music was listened to in all of Latin America. For example, if you were listening to mambo, you might be in Mexico, you might be in Puerto Rico, you might be in Chile. It’s not that it originates in all those places. There was just a limited [music] industry in Latin America, so there’s more universality than not.”
Reyes-Whittaker originally didn’t intend for this music to be officially released. “Had Peanut Butter Wolf not heard that project and said, ‘I need to put this out,’ I wouldn’t have thought to put it out in the first place.” The project was conceived as a response to a theme for a dublab event around Latin minimalism. After the performance, Wolf approached GB. In addition to Boleros, Stones Throw is releasing an LP by another GB-affiliated project called The Steoples (a collaboration with A Race of Angels).
A few months ago, Reyes-Whittaker traveled to Santiago de Cuba to perform at Manana, the first festival of its kind in Cuba, which featured both traditional Afro-Latin folk music and electronic sounds, often mixed together. It was his first trip to Cuba, which is already transforming since the embargo was lifted.
“It is definitely a weird place to be a tourist,” he says. “It’s definitely changing. From all the people I know that went prior to when I went, their experiences were definitely different from mine. I just hope it doesn’t get too spring break–y, which it feels like it might be.”
In addition to playing a live set with Cuban musicians, he also had the opportunity to “share some of my recordings [of the boleros and valses] with some of the people there. The elders. They had some really awesome feedback and were really interested in why I even took on this project. I wanted that feedback.
“I really appreciate that so much of the Cuban culture is still intact and insulated,” he continues. “The place is very insulated from the world, which is good and bad. On the one hand they don’t have as much access to 'world' or global culture or things like that. Similarly, the world doesn’t have that much access to what’s happening currently in Cuba.” Reyes-Whittaker wasn't sure how his own music would be received in such a climate, but the response was positive. “People were very open to the music we all brought. I think people just wanted to experience what the rest of the world was up to.”
However, one thing he found — which has been reported by many Americans accustomed to eating tasty Cuban-American food — is that the food in Cuba was a bit bland. “Coming from L.A., where we have a lot of delicious Cuban food … there, I was definitely disappointed, because I don’t think they have the same access to good ingredients. They make do. But I had some delicious exotic fruits that I’ve never had access to here, like sapote and guanabana.”